The bass saxophone is truly the Diva of musical instruments. Its
size and rarity means that wherever it chooses to find itself it
will always be the centre of attention - if only because it's so
damn large you can't possible fail to miss it!
When one such instrument came into the workshop for a major service
it required me to first find a space in which to stand it. This
is no mean feat in my workshop - which, although not small, tends
to be rather cluttered...what with assorted instrument cases jostling
for position amongst the various bits and pieces I've picked up
from here and there, mostly on the pretext that they look as though
they might be useful once I've found time to tinker with them.
Working on a bass sax is an experience all of its own - combining
equal measures of pleasure and pain.
The pleasure comes from being able to work to a larger scale. There
are no fiddling little keys on a bass, if you drop one on the floor
you're more likely to fall over it than have to crouch down on your
hands and knees in an effort to find it. Everything is so much more
spacious, even the tools required to carry out the repairs are,
on the whole, larger and so much easier to handle. The pain comes
from having to heft the thing about.
I don't suppose anyone's ever counted how many times a repairer
has to lift and turn a sax in the course of a repair, and why should
they...it's of no significance - until you find a bass sax on the
bench (or rather, half on the bench, half on the floor), at which
time the prospect of having to lift it up and turn it over again
and again becomes so physically demanding that frequent tea-breaks
are required in order to keep up one's constitution.
Yet more pain is inflicted by virtue of the springs. A stripped
bass bristles like a porcupine - one careless movement, one ill-considered
grip and you're chastised with a dirty great needle spring plunging
into your finger.
Anticipating this, I'd wisely stuck a strip of sellotape over the
slot of my swear box - thus saving myself a small fortune.
The clients appreciate the stature of such a formidable instrument
too - their entry into the workshop changes from the usual 'Hello,
I've come to drop off my clarinet/sax/flute' to 'Hello, I've...ooh
what on earth is THAT??' - and it seems to me that my reputation
takes on a small shine merely by virtue of being associated with
such a grand and stately member of the saxophone family.
If there's an art to fixing a bass saxophone, it's approximation.
The sheer size of the keys coupled with the softness of the brass
they're made of means that you have to take into account the 'spring'
in the action (this is true of all keyed woodwind instruments, though
the smaller they get the less critical it becomes). The problem
increases exponentially with the age of the instrument - where the
design makes no concessions to the phenomenon and time has played
havoc with the stiffness of the keys...if it even existed in the
You find yourself having to set the action up in such a manner that,
in theory, it ought to leak like a sieve - and yet in practice it
This is perhaps why I see so few bass saxes in for repair (ignoring
the fact that they're rare, of course) - they just seem to keep
on going, regardless of condition.
I'd arranged with the client to deliver the sax once it had been
repaired. It just so happened that he had a gig in a nearby village,
and what with him living many miles away from the workshop it seemed
sensible for me to drop in on him at the gig and hand over the completed
saxophone. It would save him a journey, and provide me with an excuse
to nip out for a couple of pints (and to see the client working
in a professional capacity).
The gig was in a club in Alresford - and the only directions given
were the name of the club and the street in which it resided. I
figured it would be difficult to find - out here in the sticks you
don't really expect a village jazz club to have a huge flashing
neon sign outside - and as it turned out I was right, and so spent
a good half hour driving back and forth along a dark road with my
head out of the window, desperately trying to hear the faint sounds
of jazz emanating from a nearby building.
I'd certainly picked the wrong night - the fair was in town, and
all I could hear was the cacophony of loud music and screams from
half a mile up the road (sounds like one of MY gigs).
I took a chance, and drove up small road that looked like something
might be at the end of it - and found a vaguely club-like building.
I knew I'd got the right place - just behind the glass door stood
a chap with an unfeasibly bushy white beard. I thus knew two things
- that jazz could be found here, along with real ale.
It took me a good few minutes to carefully wrestle the bass sax
out of the car. It didn't have a case, so I'd laid it on the back
seat and secured it with the seatbelts - and like so many things
in life, it was a great deal easier putting it in than it was taking
it out (children, ask your father what this means) and as I made
my way into the club I was greeted by the unfeasibly bushy white
beard, who opened the door for me. Yes folks, a bass sax really
does open doors for you.
Upstairs I heard the sound of the band closing a number...and with
perfect timing I entered the room to silence.
There was an uproarious cheer from the crowd, followed by a round
Never before have I felt my craft to be so appreciated - though
upon later reflection I reckon they must have thought I was a member
of the band who'd made it late to the venue due to the difficulty
in finding the bloody place.
Having deposited the sax by the bandstand I made a hasty beeline
for the bar, there to settle down with a pint and listen to my client
doing his stuff.
The band was a five piece outfit, plus a singer. I would hesitate
to say they were a New Orleans jazz band, the feel was rather closer
to the grand hotel bands of the 20s and 30s - a style of music no
less valid when you consider the number of stalwart players that
cut their musical teeth playing for the well-to-do in such bands
back in the distant past.
I can honestly say that I've not listened to a great deal of this
sort of music, and I think this appears to have been an oversight.
I suppose there's a tendency to consider this sort of jazz as being
twee - perhaps because, to the modern jazz lover, it appears unchallenging.
I think that's a mistake - if you sit and listen you become aware
of the fact that the style of music gives the player nowhere to
hide. It's patently melodic, with very little of the dissonance
and tension that came with the later forms of jazz - if you play
a wrong note, it really does sound like a wrong note rather than
something you might have meant to hit.
And it's certainly not unchallenging from a player's perspective,
you need a very concise command of the scales coupled with the ability
to lay out a very connected line that has to run the entire length
of your solo. I very rapidly gave up any idea of being able to sit
in on a number or two - and I can think of a great many more advanced
players who'd keep a respectful distance.
The band struck up with 'Exactly like you', and my client had strapped
himself (quite literally) to the bass sax in readiness for a solo.
I have never gotten over the sense of impending doom that comes
from seeing a client play an instrument I've just serviced. In the
back of your mind there's always that worry that you've forgotten
or missed something, and that you're about to face your worst nightmare...something
dropping off the horn halfway through a solo - followed by the entire
audience turning to look at you with evident disdain.
Thankfully it didn't happen, and a fine solo was played, which also
netted a round of applause.
I was in for a bit of a surprise though.
Most people's perception of a bass instrument is that it fulfils
two chief roles - it either sits at the back of the band and pumps
out a jolly bass line, or it occasionally features in a solo number
to which the term 'novelty' can be reasonably applied. I was quite
amazed then when the band struck up a slow ballad and the bass sax
took a solo. I think the overwhelming impression was that of wistfullness.
The bass sax is, in fact, a crooner - as mellifluous as any of Bing
Crosby's best boo-boo-booing, and with a lightness of tone that
belies its great size.
Naturally, a lot of this is due to the player.
On this occasion it was one Richard White. I've been fixing this
chap's horns for over 20 years now, and although I've heard him
play in the workshop many times, and even heard some of his recordings,
I'd never before seen him playing live. Richard has an impressive
technique, coupled with a collection of instruments and a style
of playing that's as close to the original setup and sound of the
period as it's possible to get. His alto playing is full of glorious
bends that so few players make use of these days, and on clarinet
the speed and dexterity with which he handles the instrument is
quite something to hear - as is the tone. Clarinettists in the know
will be even more impressed with fact that Richard uses a Clinton
system clarinet (a sort of modified simple system).
I watched as people danced to the band, and that in itself is something
quite special...when was the last time you saw people dancing to
a jazz band?
After the gig I noticed a small group of men clustered around the
bass sax, sitting on its stand centre stage. They looked exactly
like the small crowd of men that gather round vintage E-Type Jaguars
outside country pubs - prodding and poking, standing back with hand
on hips to take in the magnificent sight, asking all manner of (to
us) damn fool questions (Is that a Euphonium then?).
The bass sax stood there; tall, proud and aloof - if it could have
acknowledged the interest paid to it, it might have done so with
a Baroque wave of the hand and a faintly disinterested smile. And
I briefly wondered whether we own bass saxophones, or they own us.